For about two years, the Brooklyn Nets were the most tantalizing superteam in NBA history. At their peak (which lasted for about a two-week period in the spring of 2021), they had the most efficient offense of all time. Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving were harmonious in an isolation-heavy system that allowed everyone to complement everybody else. There was spacing, movement, and endless shotmaking.
Go back and watch their first-round dismantling of the Celtics in their first season together. This was the NBA’s next great dynasty being born right before our eyes. Of course, remarkably, that’s the only playoff series they ever actually won together. Because of injuries to Harden and Irving, that run ended much earlier than it otherwise would have. And then, well, um, a bunch of stuff—mostly connected to Irving’s habitual need to light whatever franchise employs him on fire—happened.
Then Harden wanted out, and the Nets traded him for a version of Ben Simmons who didn’t step on the floor for eight months. Then Durant wanted out. Then the Nets fired Steve Nash. And then, after a great offseason in which they assembled the greatest collection of shooters any basketball team ever had, Irving made yet another trade demand, and here we are today.
It goes without saying, but with Durant and Irving gone, both sent away in a catastrophic one-week span, the Nets are no longer championship contenders. That four-year period is over. Some might call the superteam an unrealized dream. Others, an inescapable nightmare. Regardless, the Nets are about to embark on the first day of a new era, back to a full-on rebuild, searching for the exact type of talent that just went out the door. (If you see Cam Thomas guest star on a future episode of The Last of Us, do not be surprised.)
But they are not “The Process” Sixers or like the tanktastic Thunder teams we’ve seen the past few years, either. It feels weird to look at these starless Nets and see a group that can make the playoffs and give some higher seed a headache right away, but—assuming they don’t move on from some of the following names for more draft capital (which isn’t a smart assumption!)—that’s pretty much who they are now.
Mikal Bridges, Nic Claxton, Cam Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Royce O’Neale, Dorian Finney-Smith, Joe Harris, Thomas (who has miraculously scored 40-plus in the last three games), and Jae Crowder are all varying degrees of good to great at what they do. The Nets still have holes in their frontcourt and are in desperate need of a ball handler—Simmons is the only player on their roster who’s ever made an All-Star team, and he’s now a total afterthought—but Brooklyn isn’t starting from six feet under.
And that’s before we get to all the draft capital they now have coming in. The Nets do not have their own first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 thanks to the aforementioned Harden trade. But after the Irving and Durant deals, they have unprotected firsts coming from Phoenix in 2023, 2025, 2027, and 2029, an unprotected first from the Mavericks in 2029, a top-eight protected pick from the Sixers in 2027 (thanks to the other Harden trade), and their own first-round picks in 2023, 2025, 2027, and beyond. (Right now, they can’t trade their own picks until 2028, but this summer, their 2030 pick will be available to move.)
There are too many pick swaps in there to even keep track of, but the bottom line is that Brooklyn basically turned itself into the East Coast version of the Utah Jazz. It can be a solid .500-ish team immediately. Fun, likable, devoid of any real headaches, able to operate on two separate timelines. The Nets can develop who they have in-house (Claxton and Bridges are very good) and engage in any potential superstar trades once another becomes available.
They could also see themselves as a way station, having made this Durant trade with hours to spare before Thursday’s deadline passes. Brooklyn has essentially cornered the market on 3-and-D wings, and they could be in extremely high demand by several postseason hopefuls. The Nuggets, Cavaliers, Bucks, Grizzlies, Warriors, Heat, and Hawks should all try to get in on the action.
(The Raptors certainly can’t be happy about this development, knowing it may undercut their O.G. Anunoby price tag.)
Eventually, Brooklyn will look to clean its books, too. That astronomical tax bill makes no sense anymore. And this team still has no cap space next summer, thanks to the big-money deals guaranteed to Simmons, Bridges, and others. (Johnson is a restricted free agent whose future is a total toss-up.)
In other words, the dust has not settled. Not even close. The Nets are in the middle of a weighty, consequential, painful transition right now. What they’ll look like tomorrow is anyone’s guess. But they also don’t have to deal with the stress that they giddily assumed back in 2019. A championship banner is very far away. But it’ll be fascinating to see what road this organization chooses on its journey back toward trying to raise one.